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MONDAY

E.J. Bellocq’s photographic portraits of prostitutes in New Orleans’ Storyville district—the ladies lolling in gauzy dishabille in the bordellos in which they worked, or posing formally in furs and feathers in the photographer’s studio—are at once evocative and opaque. Taken almost a century ago, they are startlingly modern—rich in possibility but, like the women themselves, giving up nothing but a physical image. In her second collection of poetry, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Natasha Trethewey dared to walk right into these photos and dig for narrative sinew, coloring in Bellocq’s maddening sketches by imagining a life, history, and psychology for “Ophelia,” an iconic stand-in for all half-imagined women. The award-winning author of Domestic Work places her subject in the realm of all unhappy beauties who modeled for male artists since the Pre-Raphaelites (specifically Millais’ Ophelia) artists whose worship of feminine delicacy was counterbalanced by the equally powerful pity and horror they showed toward women. Through a series of letters home, reminiscences, and other characters’ voices, the life Trethewey creates—that of a sensitive and observant woman sorting through the contradictions of her singular job and the strange relationship between artist and model—is made rich and plausible. Referring specifically to many of Bellocq’s photographs and shading in the rest, she casts her character as a poor mulatto in a wild town, negotiating racial divisions and learning that the obfuscating and inorganic lens is an unnecessary device for the repression of self that such women must develop on their own. Trethewey reads with Dolores Kendrick at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 29, at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. $10. (202) 544-7077. (Arion Berger)